Elliott: Emily Lee’s outstanding performance, defying the pressure, is helping UCLA gymnastics thrive

UCLA sophomore Emily Lee is the gymnastics version of a baseball leadoff batter.

If she’s the Bruins’ first entry into any of the four events, it’s her job to set the tone. To keep calm so their teammates feel safe. To inspire them to follow their example and maybe surpass it.

Not everyone has the nerve to take on that role, but Lee has made it out of the park for the No. 4 Bruins on a regular basis this season, scoring eight points of 9.9 or higher in the lead spot. She scored six of those points on the dangerous balance beam, a crucial event.

“When you’re at the top, you need a good routine. No need to get nervous about the rest of the lineup. Someone really solid. I can do that,” said the Los Gatos native. “But the pressure on the back end, if someone messes up in the beginning, you have this pressure of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t mess it up.’

“I never have that pressure. It’s kinda nice. You’ll get over it sooner and can then cheer on the rest of your teammates. Wherever my team needs me, I will go.”

But leadership also requires a sacrifice, which Lee willingly makes.

Judges in subjective sports like gymnastics and figure skating tend to be reluctant to award high scores to the first few competitors, leaving leeway to give top marks to those who compete later. It’s not fair, but it’s a recognized part of gymnastics.

Lee was able to dismiss that on behalf of her team’s start to solid starts, as she did with a 9.90 success on the balance beam in Thursday’s NCAA regional semifinals in a lively Pauley Pavilion. Though her teammates surpassed her 9.80 lead in the floor exercise and her score didn’t count, she was part of an impressive postseason performance. The Bruins topped the four-team field on Thursday with 198,275 points and advanced to Saturday’s Regional Finals against Utah, Washington and Missouri. The top two teams advance to the national finals in Fort Worth on Saturday.

Emily Lee competes on vault for UCLA gymnastics at the NCAA Los Angeles Regional.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“Your job is to lock up the judges. If you have a really good routine, you might be rated a little lower, but your teammates’ scores will increase because of you. That’s my job,” said Lee, who also posted a 9.85 as a second bruin on vault and a 9.80 as a second bruin on uneven bars on Thursday. “Yeah, I might sacrifice a chance to get 10s, but then my teammate might get a 10. And that’s kind of like my 10 too. Set them up for success.”

Lee’s success this season has been remarkable, a well-deserved reward for her painful recovery from a torn left Achilles tendon suffered in trials for the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which were delayed by the pandemic.

Lee had lived with aches and pains in her leg for a while but hoped to overcome the discomfort and fulfill her dream of taking the exams. She almost made it to the end: she was the last performer in the final event, the floor exercise, when she fell abruptly to the ground at the end of a tumbling pass.

At first she cried. It took a few minutes for her mind to accept what her body was telling her.

“I knew it when I got up. yes it’s gone It is finished. There’s not much hope left,” said Lee, a three-time member of the US national team. “I felt kind of relieved that night. It would eventually happen. It’s over now. I can start my rehab.

“I was luckier than most. I need to go to the Olympic trials and experience the opportunity that almost nobody gets. I wouldn’t take it back. If I had to do it again, I would. I was just really lucky.”

She rehabilitated during her freshman year, immersing herself in her difficult classes as a physiology major, but assisting with drills and some meetings.

“I think she’s always had that kind of hard-working mentality, so I knew she’d be able to come back,” said Emma Malabuyo. “But just seeing her thrive this season, especially after her injury, and not just doing one event – she’s doing everything. That really blew my mind and I think that inspires a lot of people out there as well.”

Lee’s training hit a hump when she fell again because it brought back thoughts of her injury. But her fear quickly faded.

“Meet by meet, her confidence has just blossomed and it has been amazing to see her confidence and love for gymnastics and our team grow through the process,” said coach Janelle McDonald. “She is absolutely one of the rock solid contenders on our team and can help us pursue endless goals of what we can achieve as a team.”

After missing the NCAA championship by just .025 last season, the Bruins adopted the phrase “No Regrets” as their mantra this week. They had no cause for concern on Thursday, thanks to the stellar performances of Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles – who had the best total of 39.750 – a team-best 9.975 by newcomer Selena Harris on beam and Brooklyn Moors’ return from injury helping on vault – and floor exercises participated. The Bruins are back in contention for a national title, a sweet return after tension last season that led to the resignation of then-coach Chris Waller.

UCLA's Emily Lee takes on Oregon State in a meetup on Jan. 29.

UCLA’s Emily Lee takes on Oregon State in a meetup on Jan. 29.

(Kyusung Gong/Associated Press)

Controversy over the way Waller and his staff handled a preseason incident involving racist language from a former UCLA gymnast fragmented the team. McDonald’s helped them heal, brought them closer – and brought out the best in a talented group. That’s why Lee said a few days ago that this season would be considered triumphant no matter what happens in the Regionals or beyond.

“It is already a success in many ways. I mean, last year we came from a broken culture. We came from no trust, nothing really bonded us,” Lee said. “Unlike this year, we are fully committed. We want to win and we will do everything we can to help each other succeed in and out of the gym.”

The tone she sets as a leader goes a long way in helping achieve this.

Source : www.latimes.com

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